Survey: Consumers express concerns about electric, plug-in hybrid cars

Consumer Reports News: January 30, 2012 01:53 PM

As more electric and plug-in hybrid cars charge to market, most (87 percent) consumers have a concern, with range limitations being chief among them. There are also significant safety concerns, many of which may have been fanned by the widely covered Chevrolet Volt fires experienced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) after conducting crash tests. The investigation may have been closed, but the public remains apprehensive.

In conducting our recent 2012 Car Brand Perception Survey, we added a couple questions to take America’s pulse on electric vehicle safety, and the results suggest consumers are misinformed and are likely overestimating the risks.

Despite the concerns raised, 43 percent of respondents feel electric and plug-in hybrids are as safe as gasoline-fueled cars, and one-fifth (20 percent) deemed them safer. Twenty-eight percent said the electrified cars are less safe, and nine percent responded they don’t know (a fair answer). Young consumers, those aged 18-44 years, were more likely than others to view the alternative powertrains as safer (23 vs. 17 percent).

The top concern expressed during the telephone interviews was for limited range (77 percent)—an understandable anxiety. Range can vary depending on many factors, including weather. We have found that although theoretically the Nissan Leaf has plenty of range to address the typical daily needs for most American drivers, having to run the heat and defrost can take its toll. Of course, an extended-range EV like the Chevrolet Volt or plug-in hybrids like the Toyota Prius do not have such limitations. For these cars, when the electric power is consumed, there remains a gasoline engine to provide range on par with any other traditional car.

The remaining concerns centered around safety, led by fire risk during home charging (42 percent). While there have been a couple of cases of home fires, such tragedies have been extremely rare.

Pedestrian safety due to silent operation (40 percent concerned) has been discussed for years, as some hybrid models can motor at low speeds in pure EV mode. Auto manufacturers can alleviate this risk, as the Nissan Leaf has done, by emitting external sounds broadcast via speakers or other means to alert pedestrians.

Crash protection concerns 39 percent of adult drivers, though all EVs and hybrids must meet the same, increasingly stringent crash standards as traditional models. In fact, the Leaf and Volt have both earned the coveted Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Post-crash fire concerns (35 percent) tie directly to the Volt incidents with NHTSA. Last week, the government agency released a statement: “Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe that Chevy Volts or other electric vehicles pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles. Generally, all vehicles have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash.” The agency said it “remains unaware of any real-world crashes that have resulted in a battery-related fire involving the Chevy Volt or any other electric vehicle.”

General Motors Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson spoke last week before a House subcommittee in Washington, D.C., where he had strong comments addressing Volt safety: “For all of the loose talk about fires, we are here today because tests by regulators resulted in battery fires under lab conditions that no driver would experience in the real world. In fact, Volt customers have driven over 25 million miles without a single, similar incident.”

Since those NHTSA fires, General Motors issued a “voluntary customer service campaign” to beef up the car’s structure surrounding the battery pack, thereby reducing the possibility of intrusion, and to add safety systems to the battery coolant system. These measures are included in all new Volts being produced.

This case is truly closed, but clearly there is a lingering impact.

Almost a third of respondents stated concerns for electric shock, which are unfounded. The charge stations and the connection ports are engineered to prevent shock. In all our recharging, with four outside stations at the Auto Test Center, we have never so much as felt a tingle, even in rainy conditions.

The final item that made the list is curious: Accident avoidance (29 percent concerned). Naturally, a vehicle with a heavy battery pack can present engineering challenges to ensure it can go, stop, and handle like a traditional car, especially given the narrow, low-rolling-resistance tires that are commonly installed. However, in our testing, the electrified vehicles have performed well through our battery of track tests, sometimes aided by the weight of the low-mounted battery. In fact, most have performed well enough overall to earn our recommendation.

Concerns Percent
Limited range 77
Fire risk during charging 42
Pedestrian safety 40
Crash protection 39
Post-crash fire 35
Electric shock 30
Accident avoidance 29

These responses reveal that there are still misgivings and misunderstandings about electrified cars among the general public. Exposure to such vehicles and more education should help consumers better understand that electrified cars have been proven safe alternatives to traditional cars. It is a shame the Volt incidents likely misguided consumers and potentially impacted the short-term adoption rate for this promising new technology.

See the 2012 Car Brand Perception Survey for further findings.

For that annual survey, the Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a random, nationwide telephone survey of 2,045 adults from Dec. 1-5, 2011, and collected survey data from 1,702 adults in households that had at least one car.

Visit our guide to alternative fuels.

Jeff Bartlett

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